Australian Expat Living In Italy - Interview With Catherine

Published: 12 Nov at 1 PM
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Filed: Interviews,Italy
Catherine McNamara studied graphic design and modern African history before running off to Paris to become a writer. She worked in an embassy in Mogadishu before the war, has translated welding manuals and modelled shoes, and co-ran a bar and gallery in Accra, Ghana. She now lives in northern Italy where she is restless but staying put. She is the author of the erotic comedy ‘The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy’ (Indigo Dreams Publishing UK), the collection of mostly Africa-based stories ‘Pelt and Other Stories’(coming out in April 2013, Indigo Dreams Publishing UK) and her blog (see listing here)

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy

Here's the interview with Catherine...

Where are you originally from?
I am originally from Sydney, and left Australia to study in Paris when I was twenty-one.

In which country and city are you living now?
I live in the countryside outside Vicenza in the north-east of Italy. It’s mostly agricultural, with many beautiful Palladian villas, and the Dolomites mountain range not too far away. Venice and Padua are nearby cities.

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I’ve been here for nearly ten years now and will probably be staying until my youngest son finishes high school. Then we’ll see. I am a writer with my main market in the UK, although I would also like to spend some time living in Australia in the future.

Why did you move and what do you do?
I moved to Italy after spending nearly ten years in Ghana, in West Africa. Three of my kids are half-Italian and I have a house here, so the choice was easy. I work as a translator and run a small bed-and-breakfast, although I spend most of my time writing fiction and chasing after my family.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in ItalyDid you bring family with you?
Yes, I have four children aged from twenty-three to fourteen. Given the economic situation in Italy is not very promising for young people, they are keen to try working in Australia after university. Although my daughter, who would like to study opera singing in London, is aiming to move there.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
I’ve moved around many times over the past twenty years and I can make myself feel at home in three days! I have a couple of art pieces I am very attached to which make a home for me, and as soon as I have invested in a piano (or shipped one!) it means I am here to stay. Although I’m not keen to move around too many more times, I don’t mind uprooting and completely changing outlook. It keeps you in tune with yourself, and open to new people and experiences.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
I talk a lot (my kids say!) so I don’t have problems finding friends, and am quick to differentiate between precious soul-warming friends and friendships that will pass. As I write I tend to seek out creative minds, although they are not always on call, so I have learnt to adapt to almost any situation. I don’t like being defined by being the mother of four children, and like to mix with people who are positive and making the best of their lives. I don’t socialise with expats much because we have a strong family base here and everybody is bi-lingual (though my kids can also poke fun at my Italian).

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in ItalyWhat are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Access to beautiful art and architecture is almost limitless here and forms a part of your daily life. I love that. We are also close to classical music venues – La Fenice in Venice, l’Arena in Verona. The local history of the two World Wars is close at hand and gives one a deep understanding of context. Also, each Italian region bears its distinct cuisine, accent, architecture and flavour, meaning you cannot grow tired of moving around.
Road travel is not too taxing – once you understand most rules will be broken. And food is excellent and cheap if you follow local recommendations. I have a huge weakness for shoes and handbags which are the best you will find anywhere – so shopping is a must.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
I love living in a huge isolated country house where we can be as noisy as we wish. The city is close by for socialising and education, but here I can concentrate on writing and practising the piano. In the summer time I grow my own vegetables and fruit, while in the winter we go to the nearby Dolomites to ski. Our area is very foggy and damp in the winter so the escape to the slopes is invigorating.
I also enjoy speaking Italian very much. As I work in English I feel I am able to work on my ‘island’. My internet connection is poor however, so I waste a lot of time waiting for downloads, but my creative time is very productive here. I don’t think I would be nearly as focused if I lived in a big city.

How does the cost of living compare to home?
Another advantage of living in the country is that it is much cheaper than the city, however petrol prices are constantly climbing upwards. The country’s economy is currently in a very poor state – and I don’t think conditions or attitudes will change for some years to come. I think there seem to be more opportunities in Australia and would encourage my kids to seek work there rather than in Europe. I’m not really sure about the cost of living in Australia as it’s been such a long time since I’ve lived there.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in ItalyWhat negatives, if any, are there to living here?
For someone who grew up in a moderate climate and then spent thirteen years in tropical Africa, the climate was initially quite a shock. I wasn’t used to cold weather in any way and I think it took years to improve my circulation and understand the cold. Now I tend to have less patience with extremely hot weather (it is also scorching here in summer) and look forward to the bracing winter months. I do wish I had more friends in creative fields, but that would probably lead me astray and I would lose focus. London is a cheap flight away and I go often.
Sometimes people’s attitudes are quite limited with regard to foreigners and I have seen a lot of racism. As one of my kids is mixed-race I am extremely sensitive to this and do not tolerate these views.
My biggest gripes with my part of Italy are the hunters (who shoot randomly for four months of the year) and the arrogance of most Italian drivers. Italian men also – often but not always - have rather close relationships with their mothers!

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Be prepared to go with the flow. In the south the pace of life is much slower where in the north people are often workaholics with a very intense attitude towards to recreation (overdressing, pushiness). Select the things you really love and stick with them, because other things will drive the open-minded well-travelled expat insane. You will always be able to find like-minds and wonderful generous Italians but, like anywhere, you might come across some painful caricatures along the way. You might miss anglo humour, or irony, which seem to be in short supply – so don’t be upset if no one laughs at your jokes. You could – like me – write an erotic comedy using elements of invention and observation!

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
My most difficult expat moments were without doubt in Somalia, as the country descended into war. I was expecting/had small children throughout my years in Africa, so the worst times were when I was afraid they were ill and didn’t know if I would find the right help in time.
In Africa you are also in a state of constant alarm – asking yourself about the equilibrium of the world and why you have come there. I tried to write about that in my short story collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’, coming out next year.
In Italy common bureaucratic hassles continue to astonish me.

When you finally return home, how do you think you'll cope with repatriation?
When I finally manage to spend some time living in Sydney I think will be completely ready for it! I know I will miss Europe and the proximity to other countries and capitals, and as most of my friends are now here I would have a hard time. But I have family in Sydney whom I have missed for an age, so I would have a purpose in being there.
I would also miss skiing but I could replace that with sailing I imagine.

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
The world has changed so much in the past fifteen years and in the aftermath of the Twin Towers and the rise of fundamentalism. Many places I travelled through – Mali, Ivory Coast – have undergone huge upheavals in the past years and are no longer as they were before. I would do as much research as possible before venturing on a road trip, and try to show respect to locals by understanding the mechanisms of recent history. So:
  1. Avoid dangerous areas
  2. Read up as much history and literature as you can – it will only enrich your experience

And if you are going to LIVE in another country and set down shallow roots:
  1. Try to learn the language as soon as possible otherwise your socialising will be limited. If you are single, get a local boyfriend or girlfriend! the easiest way to learn a language
  2. Write a blog so you include others and possibly network in unexpected ways
  3. Eat everything, be humble. You are a guest.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in ItalyTell us a bit about your own expat blog.
I started up my blog when my book was accepted for publication with the aim of building a writer’s platform and attracting readers. I also wanted to feel my way out there – learn to become a more public persona, learn to write ABOUT my work (which I hadn’t done before) and gather up as much advice and as many tips from other writers as I could.
I have learnt so much. I have done many blog interviews and guest posts, met people who have become not only readers but good friends. I’ve hooked up with quite a few readers in various corners of the world, making what started as a virtual process into a very real and human experience.
In the lead-up to publication I expressed my worries and fears and received reassurance from writers who were at different places along the same path. I kept my family involved in my work, kept my publisher happy, and reached new writers month after month. Now that the book is out I continue to write about how it is faring, or supply reviews, or write about elements of my life in Italy, often connected to the novel’s storyline or themes.
It continues to be a lot of fun and a healthy challenge – many bloggers say the same thing: that the pressure to produce something short, snappy and relevant, is like a quick jog around the block. Great exercise!

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
Through email stromboli27{at}yahoo-dot-com, Facebook: Catherine McNamara and Twitter: @catinitaly

Catherine blogs at and which are both worth a visit. The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy has an listing here so add a review if you like! If you appreciated this interview with Catherine, please also drop her a quick note below.
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Comments » There are 3 comments

Rachel wrote 11 years ago:

Great advice for expats and travellers - thank you! A window into an interesting life lived fully!

Kimberly Sullivan wrote 11 years ago:

Great interview and brilliant advice for writers, travellers and expats. Your diplomatic skills are clearly on display when you say that some Italian men, but not all, are too attached to their mothers. I'll have to learn from your careful formulation. : ) Thanks, Catherine!

PostcardsfromSwitzerland wrote 9 years ago:

Hi! As an Italian I couldn't agree more on how racists many Italians can be. Anyway Italy is a great choice for kids'education: public school are almost costless and very efficient. My face spots to visit in the area are the Palladian villas. Have a nice day!

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